IT was going to be the biggest presentation of my life — my first appearance on the TED Conference main stage — and I had already thrown out seven drafts. Searching for a new direction, I asked colleagues and friends for suggestions. “The most important thing,” the first one said, “is to be yourself.” The next six people I asked gave me the same tip.
We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”
We want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president. In university commencement speeches, “Be true to yourself” is one of the most common themes (behind “Expand your horizons,” and just ahead of “Never give up”).
But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.
If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.
A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.
“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”
How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring. If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.
But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances. In one fascinating study, when a steak landed on their plates, high self-monitors tasted it before pouring salt, whereas low self-monitors salted it first. As the psychologist Brian Little explains, “It is as though low self-monitors know their salt personalities very well.”
Low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies. They’re right that there’s a time and place for authenticity. Some preliminary research suggests that low self-monitors tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce. With your romantic partner, being authentic might lead to a more genuine connection (unless your name is A. J. Jacobs).
But in the rest of our lives, we pay a price for being too authentic. High self-monitors advance faster and earn higher status, in part because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.
Interestingly, women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men, perhaps because women face stronger cultural pressures to express their feelings. Sadly, that puts them at risk for being judged weak or unprofessional. When Cynthia Danaher was promoted to general manager of a group at Hewlett-Packard, she announced to her 5,300 employees that the job was “scary” and that “I need your help.” She was authentic, and her team lost confidence in her initially. Some researchers even suggest that low self-monitoring may have harmful effects on women’s progress.
But even high self-monitors can suffer from the belief in authenticity because it presupposes that there is a true self, a bedrock to our personalities that’s a combination of our convictions and abilities. As the psychologist Carol Dweck has long shown, merely believing that there’s a fixed self can interfere with growth.
Children who see abilities as fixed give up after failure; managers who believe talent is fixed fail to coach their employees. “As we strive to improve our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that helps us navigate choices and progress toward our goals,” Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the business school Insead, notes. “When we’re looking to change our game, a too rigid self-concept becomes an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth.”
If not our authentic selves, what should we be striving to reach? Decades ago, the literary critic Lionel Trilling gave us an answer that sounds very old-fashioned to our authentic ears: sincerity. Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.
Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.
When Dr. Ibarra studied consultants and investment bankers, she found that high self-monitors were more likely than their authentic peers to experiment with different leadership styles. They watched senior leaders in the organization, borrowed their language and action, and practiced them until these became second nature. They were not authentic, but they were sincere. It made them more effective.
The shift from authenticity to sincerity might be especially important for millennials. Most generational differences are vastly exaggerated — they’re driven primarily by age and maturity, not birth cohort. But one robust finding is that younger generations tend to be less concerned about social approval. Authentic self-expression works beautifully, until employers start to look at social media profiles.
As an introvert, I started my career terrified of public speaking so my authentic self wouldn’t have been giving a TED talk in the first place. But being passionate about sharing knowledge, I spent the next decade learning to do what Dr. Little, the psychologist, calls acting out of character. I decided to be the person I claimed to be, one who is comfortable in the spotlight.
It worked. Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.
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